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Published in the 1-15 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Pakistani film-makers come of age
By MH Lakdawala

Mumbai: Sharmeen Obaid, 24, one of the three women documentary filmmakers in Pakistan, is in Mumbai for a dual purpose. First, her film Terror's Children is being screened at the on-going MIFF 2004.Second, her latest venture Reinventing The Taliban (55 mins) is doing the private screening rounds in the city. 
Sharmeen Obaid

Her visit to Mumbai was because of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt who is also co-producing a film with Pakistani artistes. "I am here thanks to Mahesh," she says prior to the screening of Reinventing The Taliban at The Bayside Cafe. 

Reinventing The Taliban was shot in August last year "to provide a personal perspective to the rise of militancy in Pakistan. It explores the conflict between the secular majority and the fundamentalist minority." Obaid proved to be both zealous and fearless while filming this docu in the North West Frontier province. 

The film starts off from Peshawar and travels to the town of Dara where Obaid takes a look at Taliban-like happenings in northwest Pakistan where hoardings bearing women's photos are blackened, playing of music in public buses is banned and women are not supposed to purchase stuff from male shopkeepers or be seen in public without a veil.

The highpoint of the film is the MMA leaders speaking about their goals to create a society modelled after the Taliban as they judge what is right and wrong for a woman. She has also focussed on the local arms market where you can purchase a gun for $20 and a machine gun for $50 and the local people reveal how they had crossed over to Afghanistan to help Osama fight the Americans. 
Obaid is now busy working on a documentary for PBS Frontline World, USA, about the recent friendly gestures between India and Pakistan. She is also working on a film project about Kashmir for the Discovery Times Channel. 
Terror's Children examines the plight of Afghan refugee children in Pakistan. It premiered on the night of the launch of Discovery Times Channel (a venture between the New York Times and Discovery Communications) in March last year. With her film, Obaid wants to show the world "the other face of war and terror, the one that is specific to the children." To do so she spent much of last summer interviewing refugee Afghanis and filming them in the camps, markets and Islamic religious schools (madrassas) in Karachi. But it was this generation of Afghani children growing up in a foreign country, "living in refugee camps and subjected to abject poverty," who became her main focus.

Says Obaid: "I felt that Pakistan has always been unfavorably represented in the western media, despite the fact that we were a frontline state in the war against terrorism. When I visited Pakistan in December 2001, I learnt that an increasing number of Afghan refugees had made their way into Karachi, and while interviewing several of them, I realised that the voices of these children had been lost in the hype of September 11, Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. I wanted the western world to see how these children lived, and to understand the enormous burden on Pakistan's resources from housing and feeding close to two million refugees."

"These eight and 10-year-olds have no future. It's no wonder then, why so many of them are attracted to the madrassas, where they get free food, clothing and shelter," says Obaid.

There are moments of brilliance scattered all over this film. A group of little girls slap makeup on a friend and make her the bride in a make believe wedding. Then they march down the street in a colorful procession.These must be some very rare moments of joy, in some of the world's most tragic refugee camps. Sharmeen displays an equally rare ability to capture such moments with tenderness.

Sharmeen uses her charm to establish bonds of warmth and love with all the children in the film. She shares smiles with all the little ones and addresses them with politeness and warmth. Her tone is gentle. There are no deep theories here about world events, or heavy discussion of causes and solutions. The production style is MTV-inspired, short attention span theatre. There are lots of slick shots to lead in and out of commercial breaks.

Obaid kept her head covered at all times, as is customary for all Afghani women above the age of 14, but not her face. Men told her she was not attired "according to the wishes of Islam," and she was harassed for being a woman working outside the home. Ultimately, she hired armed guards to protect her while she worked, and undaunted, she pressed on. 
"The world should know that while the war on terrorism continues…there is an entire generation of Afghani children growing up in refugee camps and madrassas in Pakistan who are desperate and frustrated," she says. "In 10 to 20 years, if they fall into bad company, these will be the next generation of terrorists."
The plight of Afghan children, within the country and in exile abroad, has been the subject of numerous articles, films and documentaries, many of them award-winning. But having reaped a financial bonanza from the pathos of the children's lives, most of the foreign journalists have distanced themselves and moved on to the next story. 

A graduate from Smith College, Sharmeen is pursuing her Masters in International Policy at Stanford University. Terror's children was her first documentary, and she is making one more, related to the peace process between India and Pakistan. "Today, Pakistan, under the leadership of Musharraf is changing for the good. For a modern educated Muslim woman like me, he is a Godsend. Pakistan has never been so tolerant." 

Enamoured with Hindi films, she says she would like to assist a Hindi filmaker. "We have a very tainted film industry called Lollywood. People from educated and good families do not associate with it. I want that to change and make films like Satya, and Company". she says. "We can learn so many things from Indian films which, according to me, are the best after Hollywood."

Obaid describes herself as a Muslim Pakistani woman who grew up in a relatively affluent household in Karachi, a port city and commercial capital. Her father is a textile exporter and is currently the honorary consul general for Sri Lanka in Pakistan. Obaid recalls returning home after September 11, 2001, and being struck by the massive influx of refugees who had fled Afghanistan and the war on terrorism and were now highly visible in the city. She spent part of December 2001 speaking with and getting to know the refugees, especially the children. 

"I saw for myself what it was like to be a refugee in a third-world country," she writes in a background narrative that accompanied her film proposal. "At first, it was very hard; no one spoke my language and people were wary of a young woman prying into their lives. But slowly a few of the children and their families opened up to me and told me about their lives in Afghanistan and then Pakistan."

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